The Dead Idea of American Populism

A few weeks ago, a friend sent a link to me and asked my thoughts on what was discussed within. The link turned out to be a series of articles from salon.com on the subject of populism and populist movements in American contemporary history. Wikipedia describes populism as

“defined either as an ideology,[1][2][3][4] or (more uncommonly) a political philosophy,[5][6][7] or a type of discourse,[3][6] i.e., of sociopolitical thought that compares “the people” against “the elite”, and urges social and political system changes. It can also be defined as a rhetorical style employed by members of various political or social movements. It is defined by the Cambridge dictionary as “political ideas and activities that are intended to represent ordinary people’s needs and wishes”.

In terms of American political history, populism is better understood as the political will of the masses of common American voters being made into policy. Practical demonstrations of populism are the trade and labor unions which were highly (by American standards) populated in the early 20th century as well as the political machines such as Tammany Hall. The populist movements focused on forwarding the political objectives of the dues-paying members, often numbering in the tens of thousands, something up into the millions. What often came along with these organizations was corruption, racketeering, and ties to organized crime or black market economies.

The first of the Salon series of articles on populism, and the one I will address here (the rest to follow), is entitled “Nobody Represents the American People“.

The major thrust of the article is that there exists no major organization in contemporary American politics which represents the wishes and will of the ordinary American. Instead, organizations which hold influence and sway in policy making or king-making have found it more efficient to go to where the money is and gather large donations from a few donors, even easier now that the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have the same rights as individuals and can donate unlimited amounts to campaigns. (See Citizens United v Federal Election Commission). Because of this race to the money the voice of the American people has been left out of political discourse. The author ends by noting that it may be impossible for a philosopher king to reign as one might have during the days of Lincoln or Roosevelt, and in order to fix this, the American people need to be mobilized, but instead, American money is mobilized and people are not.

While the analysis is adroit, I doubt that any mass mobilization of the American people will take place for the long campaign. All it takes is a look at my generation. The lost 20-somethings who think that changing our facebook profile pictures to cartoon is going to end child abuse, or who are too lazy to read anything more than 140 characters in length, or who are more interested in being noticed for their culture than actually contributing towards it. The American people at this point will only mobilize if it suits them, and more often than not, it does not suit them.

It is my opinion that mass membership organizations are dead and the only way for the American citizen to bring their voices back into mainstream policy is to completely rewrite campaign funding and finance laws. Eliminating the electoral college, the long-obsolete and undemocratic means of determining an election, and replacing it with a pure popular vote is a first step. Prohibiting unlimited donations is another means (i.e. reversing the most recent Supreme Court decision with legislation) of working towards a more common voice. Eliminating the year-long campaign season, setting a spending cap on campaigns, establishing term limits, and barring lobbyists from offering gifts in any form to elected officials are other methods. All of these have draws and drawbacks, and no solution is perfect, but in order to get the common voice back in politics, methods which seem as severe as these are necessary. The only way to replace money with opinion is to remove the money.

Once the money is gone from politics, a highly idealist stance, I know, the only voice remaining to influence policy will be that of citizens. Not special interests, not organizations, not lobbies, but regular citizens, be they rich or poor, weighing in on which direction American needs to go.

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